It can be hard for us to think of the church as victorious. As we survey the landscape, we see churches slipping into lawlessness and even anti-Christian teachings. In our personal lives, some of our deepest wounds may be from divisions, disappointments, or betrayals that happened within the church. Our own sins and weaknesses as members of the body of Christ weigh on our consciences at times. As we survey the church, can we describe it as victorious? How do we reconcile what we see at times with the glorious and triumphant church that the Bible describes?
You may have heard Christians speak of a distinction between the church triumphant and the church militant. In this way of looking at the church, the church militant is made up of believers here on earth. These believers are called to fight the good fight of faith in the midst of trials and temptations. The church triumphant is made up of believers who have run their course and gone to be with the Lord. Though this distinction is helpful, we need to be careful that we understand that these are not two separate churches. It should be an encouragement to the believer to remember that the church militant and the church triumphant are ultimately one church.
One picture that helps us to readjust our focus is the concept of citizenship in the Bible. There are a number of texts that teach us that becoming a Christian comes with a very real “transfer” of citizenship. These passages show us that when we were unconverted, we were by nature strangers to God and foreigners (Eph. 2:19), and that we had set our mind on earthly things (Phil. 3:19–20). But, having been brought to faith in Christ, we have become citizens of heaven. Our true identity is not grounded on this earth, but it is in the heavenly inheritance that Christ has secured on our behalf.
Even beyond citizenship, a clear expression of the truth that Christians are members of the universal church is found in Hebrews 12:22–24.
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.
Notice that this description is in the perfect tense. We have already come, and that has ongoing ramifications.
This means that we are already united with the church triumphant in a real, present sense. We are surrounded by an army of angels and a massive company of all the saints. We should even picture the Old Testament saints surrounding us as we run through life (12:1). And this glorious, victorious hope of being united to this assembly does not rest on our performance, but it all rests and focuses on the perfect work of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant.
When we look at the church, we need to make sure that our lens is not too narrow and that it is not focused in all the wrong directions. The church is not on the defensive, fighting a losing battle, but it is always on the offensive, always conquering (Matt. 16:18). We must remember that the church is never shrinking—it is always growing. When converts are added, they are members for all eternity; the second death has no power over God’s people (Rev. 2:11, 20:6). Looking forward and upward, we set our minds on Christ, who sits as the victorious King of kings at the right hand of God (Col. 3:1–4). Knowing that He is sovereign over all things, we can rejoice in the midst of trials, understanding that they are not ultimately harming us. In His sovereign plan, all of our trials, even those within the church, are perfecting our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 11:19; 1 Peter 1:6–9).
In the midst of battle, it is easy to get discouraged by the bumps, bruises, and wounds that we suffer. When we see other Christians fail, fall, or pass away, it can be devastating. So, we must be reminded that our Captain has already conquered sin and death. He is risen indeed! His strategies will never fail, and all of His soldiers will triumph. Let us look upward and forward to the time when He will dwell in the midst of His perfected church and will make all things new (Rev. 21:1–4).